SIBILLA ALERAMO (1876-1960)
Sibilla Aleramo gives a fictionalised account of her own experience of marriage in A Woman (Una Donna, 1906), that dry, severe novel in which none of the characters are named and anything that can go wrong does. Newly married to a man who first staked his physical claim by raping her, the book’s protagonist finds she has achieved the one respectable role available to a middle-class woman: ‘My new flannel dresses constantly reminded me that I really was a married woman, a serious person, whose place in life was irrevocably fixed’. Identified by her clothing, she is, however, dressed as other women in her situation are dressed and her identity is, in effect, indistinguishable from theirs. In becoming a ‘married woman’, rather than an unmarried girl, she has suffered a physical redefinition at the hands of her husband; but their honeymoon offered her no awakening: ‘There had been no emotional satisfaction or sensual arousal. Oh, the expectations of a young girl! I hadn’t had sufficient time before I was married to construct a complete world of rapture out of my dreams but my disappointment was as bitter as if I had’. On this discovery of the fact that there is ‘no more mystery’ to her physical existence, she despondently hands her body over to her husband: ‘I was taken over by a sort of lethargy. I seemed to need to do nothing except abandon myself completely to my new surroundings. As a result my body submitted to my husband’s wishes although I found him physically more and more repugnant’. Even motherhood, which briefly promises some kind of bodily fulfillment—until she has to farm out her son to a succession of peasant wet-nurses—proves unsuited to the complexity of her needs: ‘That rosy, breathing infant gave me pleasures and anxieties which were essentially uncomplicated, but which seemed constantly at odds with a sense of instability, a strange oscillation between lethargy and excitement, desire and indifference’.
Stability, of course, is the ideal quality in a middle-class wife. It is her duty to maintain not only, with the help of servants, the fabric of the marital home but also the emotional balance of the family—regardless of a husband’s irrational mood-swings. The problem with this protagonist is that she is too intelligent to carry out such tasks without questioning them. Looking around at the limited social group to which she is expected to restrict herself, she sees only the falsity of social roles: ‘Was there anyone who dared to tell the truth and live their lives accordingly? I felt sorry for this so-called life. Everyone was so anxious to preserve it, even when it was gloomy and petty, that everyone capitulated’. She is helped to see beyond to the lies that stabilise this society by reading two sorts of books, sociological and feminist. The former confirm her intuitions of economic unfairness, while the latter introduce her to the full implications of a term she first heard when she was a girl: ‘emancipation’. In the books she reads by feminist women from Britain and Scandinavia, far from seeming abstract, emancipation is embodied in an image of struggling women: ‘I felt irresistibly drawn to these exasperated women who protested in the name of all their sex, often at the cost of suppressing their deepest needs for love, beauty and motherhood’. Given the nature of her physical enslavement to the head of her household, she especially admires those women who have cut themselves free of men by sacrificing their own right to physical pleasure. Since sexual relations with her husband give her no pleasure at all, she is be able to identify herself with them: ‘whenever in my reading or daydreams I encountered women, historical or contemporary, who had chosen celibacy, I saluted their splendid iciness, feeling myself to be one of them, their sister’.
As it happened in Aleramo’s life, but not in the novel, she found a warmer alternative to celibacy, both in the arms of other women—including, in 1908, Lina Poletti who, in 1909, would have an affair with the actress Eleonora Duse—but also with more accommodating men than her husband had ever been. Her most passionate relationship with a man would be in 1916 and 1917 with the poet Dino Campana (1885-1932), who was also a lover of men. Like Aleramo herself, the protagonist of A Woman is an autodidact who uses education to turn herself into a writer and thereby liberate herself from her marriage. But she does so at high cost: she has to leave her son behind. He literally belongs, as she did, to his father. Released into a community of feminist women and the broader community of socially concerned Italian intellectuals, but cut off from her son, she writes him a book. Whether A Woman could ever be accepted by him as a generous gift is open to question—among Italians, motherhood is generally expected to be a good deal warmer in tone—but it is certainly a rigorous bequest to subsequent generations of Italian women. Indeed, widely translated almost at once, it reached women readers around the world, even if it is now rather forgotten.
Source: Sibilla Aleramo, A Woman (London: Virago, 1979), pp.35-36, 37, 53, 90, 91, 94.